Belarus: RSF calls for release of journalist on trial in Minsk

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the immediate release of Zmitser Halko, a freelance journalist whose trial began in Minsk on 10 July and was due to continue today. Detained since April and facing a possible six-year sentence on a charge of using force against a police officer, he is clearly the victim of persecution.

Halko is known for his extensive reporting in Ukraine since the revolution there in 2014 and his recent work for Belaruski Partyzan, a leading independent Belarusian news website that was blocked in Belarus last year.

“At a time when critical journalists are being harassed, the prosecution of Zmitser Halko has the hallmarks of an act of revenge,” said Johann Bihr, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “There is no reason for this journalist to be in prison. We call for his immediate release and the withdrawal of all charges against him.”

It emerged at the first hearing on 10 July that Halko is charged in connection with an altercation with a police officer who, along with several other officers, burst into his home during a birthday party for Halko’s 15-year-old son in November 2017.

The officer admitted during the hearing that the police had received no complaint from neighbours and said they had intervened on their own initiative after seeing minors on the apartment’s balcony and “suspecting that they were drinking alcohol.”

Despite the illegality of this raid on a private home, the policemen stayed for an hour, while they filmed and awaited reinforcements. After an hour, an altercation erupted and Halko intervened when his son was held on the floor. They were both then handcuffed and taken to a police station.

Shortly thereafter, Halko was fined for “disorderly conduct.” But this did not satisfy the police, who brought criminal charges against him. Halko was arrested on 21 April, on his return to Belarus from several weeks in Ukraine, where he had gone to see his partner.

Halko has covered the revolution and armed conflict in Ukraine for several Belarusian and foreign media outlets and, in the course of his reporting, was briefly detained by rebel separatists in 2014. Because of his local knowledge, he has also worked in Ukraine as a fixer for foreign journalists.

He took over as editor of the Belaruski Partyzan website in 2016, shortly after the murder of its founder, Pavel Sheremet, in Kiev, and continued to hold that position until 2017. Belaruski Partyzan actively covered the anti-government protests in Belarus in the spring of 2017, published frequent articles critical of the Belarusian government and intensified its pro-Ukrainian line before being blocked in Belarus in December 2017.

Belarus is ranked 155th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2018 World Press Freedom Index.

The authorities have imposed additional constraints on press freedom in recent months, including an unprecedented wave of fines on independent journalists and the adoption of an even more draconian media law.